June 20. 2017 10:34AM

Study: Education tax disparity persists

State House Bureau

Reader Poll

  • Given the goal of 'equal access to an adequate education', do you expect courts ever to be completely satisfied with how NH funds education?
  • Yes
  • 7%
  • No
  • 89%
  • Ambivalent
  • 4%
  • Total Votes: 1446

CONCORD — In December of 1997, the state Supreme Court issued its landmark Claremont II decision, calling for equal access to an adequate education across the state, regardless of community wealth or property values.

As the 20th anniversary of the decision approaches, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies has completed a detailed analysis of education funding in the state and concludes that little has changed since 1997.

There has been a 40 percent increase in state aid to education since the Claremont decision, the report notes, while at the same time there has been a 15 percent decline in school enrollment statewide, yet vast disparities still exist from one community to another.

Property-poor communities like Claremont and Franklin continue to tax their residents at disproportionately higher rates to finance education.

According to the policy center, which bills itself as an independent, nonprofit, non-partisan organization that pursues data-driven research on public policy, a continued decline in enrollment will mean even less funding in the future.

In a report titled, "Education Finance in New Hampshire: Headed to a Rural Crisis?" the policy center projects that state aid to school districts will shrink by $16 million over the next five years.

The report can be viewed below: 

"This means, assuming that nothing else changes, that rural communities like Newport, Berlin, Lancaster, Greenville and Hinsdale will have to increase their school property tax rates by as much as 10 percent, even before allowing for cost increases in other areas," said Center Executive Director Steve Norton.

Despite 20 years of education funding lawsuits and various changes in the funding formula, the state's response to the court's 1997 mandate has not significantly altered the wide variation in how much schools spend on public education and how much they have to tax themselves to do it, Norton said.

"Both Claremont and Hampton spend about the statewide median amount per pupil — close to $16,000 per elementary student per year — and have the same size student population," said economist Greg Bird, who co-authored the report with Norton.

"But Hampton can do it with a school property tax rate of $8.90 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, while Claremont has to tax itself almost three times as much — $24.20 per $1,000."

The research suggests that the disparities will persist and worsen absent a major change in how education is structured and funded, according to Norton.

"What we have discovered raises important questions about how many rural communities prepare to transition to what we might call a new education normal ‘smaller schools, consolidated districts, new models of learning' and what role the state should play in that transition," he said.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, was the lead attorney for Claremont and other property-poor communities in the Claremont lawsuit against the state. He said the findings of the report ring true to him.

"Five years after the Claremont II decision, the state reached its zenith in contributing to school funding, and we've been retrenching ever since then," Volinsky said. "At one point we did a lot better, and we've fallen. Ever since then, every governor, every Legislature has found ways to slowly back away from that to the point where we are just as bad now as we were 20 years ago."

Gov. Chris Sununu had not seen the report and declined to comment in detail, but said he was never a fan of the Claremont rulings and would not be surprised to learn they've had little effect on equalizing educational opportunity.

"I've always had severe reservations about the Claremont decisions of the 90s," he said. "I think the power of education funding needs to solely be in the hands of the Legislature, the true representatives of the people. Right now a lot of it sits in the courts, so allowing that process to return to the Legislature is absolutely vital."